Nir Discusses GSC Goals, Challenges Facing First- Year Graduate Students

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Oaz Nir is the current Graduate Student Counsel President.
Kevin Zhang

This is the fourth interview in a five-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech features an interview with Oaz Nir G, the president of the Graduate Student Council, who describes the GSC’s advocacy and offers advice to incoming graduate students.

The Tech: To open, tell us a little about yourself.

Oaz Nir: Well, I’m in the Health Sciences and Technology program, which is a joint program between MIT and Harvard Med. School. I’ve been here for three years. … For my undergraduate [education], I went to Duke University, where I majored in math and English.

TT: How have you found grad school, specifically grad school here at MIT, a different experience than your undergraduate years?

ON: I think the major difference between undergrad and a PhD program is that undergraduate life is a lot more structured. You’ve got classes to go to. You’ve got some flexibility in terms of choosing those classes, but your schedule day-to-day is in many ways set, to some extent.

In graduate school, things are way more free-form. It’s kind of up to you and your advisor to set research goals and to meet those.

At the same time, though, I think there are a lot of similarities in terms of the ability to go out and do extracurricular activities and do a lot more outside of the classroom and outside of academics.

I think that’s actually a somewhat commonly held misconception about graduate students, that all we’re supposed to do is work in the lab. And in fact, I think it’s actually true that people’s work in the lab is improved if they have side interests and side hobbies and get out and let their minds take a break, or at least use their minds in different ways.

TT: What kind of side interests and hobbies have you gotten involved in?

ON: I’ve been involved in the Graduate Student Council.

I started out as the editor of the Graduate Student News magazine. … My reasons for getting involved in the GSN were really based on my interests in writing and journalism. At that point, I didn’t actually know that much about the Graduate Student Council, which publishes the GSN. Over the course of the year, I learned more about the student council and saw the really great things that it does and really important things for graduate students, and so I wanted to get more involved in that.

I was secretary the subsequent year in 2007–2008, and this year I’m president.

Besides the Graduate Student Council, which is a pretty time-consuming endeavor, I’m also a GRT in Next House. …

TT: Are there any resources that you’ve found at MIT that you wish you had found earlier in your time here?

ON: Yeah, there are plenty, actually.

One, like I already mentioned, I wasn’t really aware of what the Graduate Student Council did during my first year here. I think that’s actually something that falls on us to do a better job of marketing ourselves and making clear to students what we’re about and what we do.

More practically, there are some resources that I didn’t take advantage of at the beginning of my time here. One is the Careers Office. They have great resources over there. … I think they have useful panels and workshops that can give you an idea of what you might want to do once you get out of school, and those are things that I wasn’t really aware of and didn’t take advantage of during my first year, year-and-a-half here.

There are some more esoteric things that a lot of people aren’t aware of, like the Furniture Exchange, which is over by MIT Mail Services [in Building WW15], which provides pretty decent furniture for a pretty reasonable price — something that can benefit a lot of graduate students, especially ones moving into unfurnished apartments.

TT: Is there any advice that you have for the graduate students who are just arriving this week?

ON: Looking back to my experience during my first year, I think it’s important to try to cast a wide net in terms of who you meet and who you’re able to learn from. I think it’s a common tendency for graduate students to stay within their lab group or within their department, in terms of the individuals they interact with. … There are so many people here doing so many interesting things, and you can learn a lot from an area that maybe you think is different from yours.

Cast a wide net in terms of who you try to meet [and] who you try to talk to, especially during the first couple months. …

TT: What do you think are the biggest challenges that graduate students face?

ON: I’d say the primary thing is this misconception that graduate students are here just to do their research and just to work in the lab. There’s so much more to do besides just research. …

Living a more balanced life in terms of how you spend your time and where you devote your mental interests — simple things like getting some physical activity — really makes all of your different pieces work better. … You do better at everything if you’re a little bit more diverse. I think that’s probably the single most important challenge facing graduate students. …

It’s certainly true that the experience of graduate students at MIT is tremendously varied. There are people coming in right out of undergraduate [programs], people that have worked a couple of years, and there are people that have worked a couple of decades. … There are students that are married, students that are single, and students with families.

TT: What are some of the major goals the GSC has for this upcoming year?

ON: One of our primary goals is strengthening our interactions and our relationships with different administrators at MIT. At the top of that list is forming a strong relationship with the new dean for student life … and helping him understand what life is like for graduate students here and the diversity of experiences that graduate students have.

There’s a new committee on student engagement that was formed at the end of last year. The GSC is committed to working within that committee and with the different administrators, undergraduate students, and faculty on that committee, to try to improve the level of input into decisions that are made.

Beyond that, we have a lot of specific goals. We set up a task force on graduate housing and residential life. The motivation behind that is the new graduate dorm NW35 is opening up. … I’m happy how it turned out in the end, but along the way, there were some major hiccups in the communication process with the administration and with the specifications for the rooms, the cost of the rooms. What we’re trying to do here is get on the ball early and figure out what graduate students want in the next graduate housing project. …

We’ve also put together a second task force on alumni relations. We’re working with the Alumni Association, which does great work. The need that we’ve identified is that there aren’t too many programs that the Alumni Association has that connect graduate students with graduate student alumni. There could be a lot of value in seeing where graduate students end up, what career paths they take, and what sort of advice can we glean from them.

The concrete project for that task force is going to be a graduate student gift campaign, which is along the same lines as the senior class gift. We’re going to work in the fall to determine what the campaign should be for. A couple of ideas on the table are fellowships for graduate students, a fund for graduate student life, or the emergency general care fund that the GSC, the [Office of the Dean for Graduate Education], and MIT Dental have all contributed to. …

In terms of the core programs, we have four major standing committees — the Orientation committee, the Activities committee, the Academics, Research, and Careers committee, and finally the Housing and Community Affairs committee. The titles of those committees give a good sense of what they’re responsible for. …

TT: Why should graduate students care about what the GSC does?

ON: The GSC really does some fundamentally important things on behalf of graduate students here. In addition to aiding in the growth of graduate community through orientation and the activities we put on throughout the year, the GSC also performs a really fundamental advocacy role.

The GSC is the group that gathers information on increases in the cost of living and argues for an appropriate increase in stipends of students. It’s hard to stress how important that is for the life and the quality of life for graduate students.

Also, we’ve been involved — and one of our great successes of the past year — is getting this dental plan for graduate students. It’s something that’s been a gap in terms of medical coverage for graduate students here. The achievement of the dental care plan was in large part the work of the Housing and Community Affairs committee of the GSC, along with the support and very significant efforts of the Office of the [Dean for Graduate Education] and from Steve Lerman …

TT: If students have concerns, where should they go? If students are interested in getting involved with the GSC, how do they start to get involved?

ON: We have a pretty well designed Web site, If you go there, it’s pretty clear how to submit feedback.

In terms of getting involved in the GSC, there are many ways. The starting points for most people would be either to join as a representative, which means to serve on our legislative body … or to join one of our committees and do work within those bounds.

The latter option is as simple as looking up on the MIT Events Calendar when, say, the next meeting of the Academics, Research, and Careers committee is and just showing up to it.

In terms of the former option, we have representatives from departments and from dorms, as well as several representatives that are either at large, or representing some interest groups. The process varies from department to department, from dorm to dorm, but it basically involves gathering a petition of signatures and submitting that to the vice president.